by Brian Cathcart
Is there a link between the BBC crisis and Leveson? Does the fate of George Entwistle teach us lessons about regulated journalism? Sunday papers are fumbling for the connection.
In the Observer, the headline on Peter Preston’s media column declares: ‘While Leveson’s in his bunker, the media’s in chaos’. Dominic Lawson writes in the Sunday Times under the headline: ‘Forget a press gag, it’s Twitter we must police.’
Meanwhile the Mail on Sunday editorial declares: ‘It is striking that, as Lord Justice Leveson is expected to recommend statutory regulation of newspapers, there is still no plan to create an effective external watchdog for the BBC…’
All of this artfully misses the obvious point: the BBC has taken responsibility. In the Savile affair the BBC was quick to establish two external inquiries into what had happened, and in the McAlpine affair the corporation’s boss resigned. That, in a relatively extreme form, is what accountability looks like.
Now look at the press. After the disappearance of Madeleine McCann a dozen newspapers printed between them several hundred front-page libels against the child’s parents and others. (We are certain they were libels because the papers later admitted it.) No editor resigned, and so far as we know not a single journalist was so much as reprimanded.
The worst offenders were the Star and Express papers, which admitted printing no fewer than 110 articles that were absolutely unfounded. Their editor in chief of the time, Peter Hill, was later asked whether anyone was disciplined or reprimanded and he replied: ‘I reprimanded myself, because I was responsible.‘ Did he resign? No. Did any of his friends in the editorial chairs of other national newspapers demand that he resign? No.
The wrong committed against the McCanns was at least as grave as the wrong committed against Lord McAlpine. But no one in the press took responsibility and there was no mechanism to hold them to account and ensure (as is demanded now of the BBC) that such a mistake can’t happen again. The papers that printed falsehoods just carried on as normal and, predictably, before long they were at it again, printing falsehoods en masse about the Bristol teacher Christopher Jefferies.
Now look at the Savile affair. The press is unregulated and we are constantly told that this is necessary so they can be fearless and hold bad people to account. (Though clearly this doesn’t include bad people in their own midst.) Where were they when Jimmy Savile was preying on young women? Like almost everybody else, regulated or otherwise, they were applauding his charity work. The papers might claim he was protected from exposure by the libel laws, but that protection ended with his death in October 2011. So on that date did they have years of pent-up, libel-gagged investigations ready for publication? No. Not in October 2011, and not ever. In the end it was state-regulated ITV that unleashed the scandal.
As for the BBC, there are allegations it had the story late in 2011 but failed to air it. This caused a scandal and within days two externally-led inquiries were established to look into what had happened and into the long-term background. The BBC, in other words, took responsibility. More than that, it aired the allegations against itself in a Panorma programme.
Contrast this with the behaviour of News International over phone hacking. The very latest date on which we can be sure the Murdoch management was in possession of good evidence that phone hacking had been widespread at the News of the World was early 2007. When did they establish an externally-led inquiry? Never. When did they publish a journalistic investigation of their own wrongdoings? Never. Instead, for four years they peddled the lie that only one rogue reporter had been involved, and it took the combined efforts of dozens of hacking victims, suing in the courts, to winkle out the evidence that forced a confession.
And while News International failed to take responsibility over hacking so, once again, did the editors of most of the other national papers, supposedly bitter rivals. They not only failed to investigate the scandal of hacking in their own midst, they also conspired to cover it up by mocking and marginalising the story, or simply keeping quiet.
It is true that one editor, Andy Coulson, resigned over phone hacking in 2007. What the world did not know at the time was that this was no ordinary mea culpa resignation, because Coulson received a substantial six-figure pay-off. People who resign don’t normally get pay-offs, though people who are sacked often do. Either way, Coulson didn’t so much fall on his sword as fall on a bed of cash.
When it comes to responsibility and accountability, the national press has a lot to learn from the BBC.
Brian Cathcart is director of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart.
To find out more about the events that led to Leveson, download Brian Cathcart’s Penguin Special, Everybody’s Hacked Off.